By Farzad Madadzadeh
I met Saber Sharbati during a soccer game in prison. He was full of energy and life. As months turned into years between cells and barbed wire courtyards, we grew as close as brothers. He would tell me that each morning, he was gripped with the fear that it might be his last. Each night, his slumber was tormented with the same dream: dim figures placed a noose around his neck and he struggled until daylight as the chair was pulled from under his feet.
Saber grew up in Tehran and lost his father at age nine. Poverty and circumstance forced him to drop out of school and find work to support his mother and sister. In 2005, when he was just 15, he was arrested after being involved in a youthful brawl. The judiciary found him guilty and condemned him to death. He would spend the final 10 years of his life in torture and incarceration. This past August, he was murdered under orders from the head of the infamous Gohardasht Prison.
Saber was just one of the many juvenile offenders who have filled Iranian prisons, sentenced to pay the ultimate price. His story stands as testament to the inhumanity of a man and regime who were welcomed as guests of the Italian and French governments late last month. That man is Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
U.N. special rapporteurs have confirmed that human rights in Iran have deteriorated during Rouhani’s tenure. In fact, since he took office in 2013, some 2,200 people have been executed. This figure is three times the number of executions during the same period in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s notoriously heavy-handed presidency.
Some may argue that the Iranian judiciary acts independently of the executive branch. However, in response to international outcry over the staggering rise of executions, on April 20, 2014 Rouhani described these executions as “God’s commandments” and “laws of the parliament that belong to the people.” This is not surprising given the president’s need to prove close allegiance to and support for the Islamic Republic’s beliefs and practices as a prerequisite for the position. In addition, Rouhani’s Justice Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, has been identified as one of the three members of the “death commission” that ordered the execution of some 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 based on a fatwa issued by Ruhollah Khomeini.
I have seen many young innocents like Saber perish at the hands of the theocracy in Tehran. I was a political prisoner from February 2009 to February 2014 due to my support for the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI or MEK), the principal Iranian opposition movement, arrested simply for my beliefs and affiliations. In the five years that I spent in the prisons of Evin and Gohardasht, I endured the most severe physical and psychological forms of torture known to mankind. But truly the most torturous experience was seeing young people spend the brief remainder of their lives behind bars, waiting to be sent to the gallows for trivial offenses.
The Iranian regime ranks first in the world in executions per capita. It also leads in the number of minors sentenced to death each year. Even more disturbing is the fact that most of the “crimes” committed are simply nonviolent expressions of free speech, or acts of desperation in the face of extreme poverty. In an attempt to skirt international criticism, juveniles are typically kept in prison until they are over 18 and hanged shortly thereafter. The most recent episode was in October 2015, when two citizens who were young teens at the time of their offenses were murdered in prison soon after coming of age. Amnesty International decried the incident—and the Iranian judicial system—as senseless and inhumane. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the hangings as a horrific crime.
This wave of executions is just one example of the regime’s unbridled reign of terror. Others include the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities, systematic and institutionalized discrimination against women, and the persistent usage of barbaric punishments such as eye-gouging or public amputations.
How ironic that Hassan Rouhani might be considered “moderate” by the Western world; such a sentiment is an insult to the Iranian people. In this context, they scoff at the Feb. 26, 2016, parliamentary election masquerade, which amounts to a stage-managed “selection” without any semblance of legitimacy. It is not without reason that young people like Saber have and will shun this farce.
Let us hope that Western politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will not have any illusions about Rouhani and the upcoming elections. A stamp of approval from West in the name of short-term economic and political expediency is immoral with colossal consequences. The true cost, indeed, will be the attrition of ideals that the enlightened world holds dear.
Farzad Madadzadeh is a 30-year-old Iranian former political prisoner. Incarcerated from 2009 until 2014, he fled Iran in mid-2015.
[Photo courtesty of Wikimedia Commons]